Three things you should know about me is that I don’t like sweating, I never go barefoot in any bathroom but my own and walking around in a swimsuit is not my favourite thing. So when I got the opportunity to visit the Harrogate Turkish Baths where by definition you sweat barefoot in a room full of strangers with barely anything on, I was a bit unsure. But, adventurer that I am, when the day came I put my bathers and brave face on and soon discovered that spending a day at the Harrogate Turkish Baths should be the number one thing on your to-do list in Yorkshire.
Turkish baths, sometimes also known as a hammam is basically a place where you can take a bath in public. It became common practice during the Ottoman Empire and is today still very much part of Islamic and Western culture. As personal hygiene became more popular in the 1800’s, the idea of Turkish baths spread to Europe and before anyone could wipe the sweat from their brow, the Victorian Turkish bath was born, of which the Harrogate Turkish Baths are the only ones in England still in fully working order.
But let’s go back. By the mid 19th century, wash houses and public baths took on several forms across the UK and in 1857 the first Victorian Turkish public bath was built and opened in Manchester. It quickly became very popular and during the 1880’s the father of Victorian Harrogate, Richard Ellis quite liked the idea of turning the natural spring water of Harrogate discovered in 1571 into a top of the range bathing and hydrotherapy centre for the rich and elite. Declared open by the Duke of Cambridge on 23 July 1897, the newly named Royal Baths offered treatments for conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism through the healing powers of the spring and it laid the foundations of the Turkish baths we know and can enjoy today.
In more modern times the ideas of wash houses and public baths have been replaced by spas and wellness centres, and the same is in part true for the Royal Baths which closed in 1969. Today the only remaining spa facility in the old Victorian building is the Turkish baths were you can experience a very unique heat therapy experience.
A session at the Harrogate Turkish Baths is not just quick sweat and go experience. Once you have checked in at the reception desk you will be directed to a small changing area where it’s time to slip your swimsuit on. Note that the baths are mixed for the most part, so wear something that you will be comfortable in around other bathers. You are also not allowed to wear shoes beyond this point, so book a pedi beforehand. After changing you will get a brief introduction and explanation of the rules, etc. The heat experience then starts with the relaxation room heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air, allowing you to start working up a bit of a sweat. Bathers may then move to three even hotter rooms based on personal preference and how long you can stand the heat before passing out.
As you move on from one heated room to the next, be sure to take your towel with you as you will either want to sit or stand on it in the hottest rooms. The seats become pretty steamy and if your feet are sensitive like mine, walking on glowing coals is nothing compared to the heat radiating from the terrazzo floors.
When the heat eventually becomes too much and you can’t see through the litres of sweat stinging your eyes, you are advised to go take a dip in the icy but very pretty pool. After performing a full body wash in the pool, receiving a massage is traditionally the thing to do next and is available at an additional cost. Alternatively you can enjoy the steam room for free. Finally, when you are done sweating, steaming and swimming, you must retire to the cooling-room for a compulsory period of relaxation and to readjust your body temperature.
If you have been in a hammam before, you will be surprised to find a few differences to the experience in Harrogate. Unlike the traditional Islamic hammam, Victorian Turkish baths use hot, dry air instead of steam and whereas you are able to take a dip in the cold water pool, in the Islamic hammams the bathers splash themselves with cold water.
After the first bath opened nearly 125 years ago, over 600 Turkish baths opened and closed in the UK and today only three remain open in England, none of which have been restored to its format glory quite like the Harrogate Turkish Baths. The original decorative style inside, including the baths’ Moorish design is one of the main reasons to visit. The Islamic arches and screens, walls of vibrant glazed brickwork, the arabesque painted ceilings and terrazzo floors laid by the very best Italian experts all add to its historic qualities and are just a feast for the eyes!
Other than just being absolutely beautiful, spending some time in a Turkish Bath also has many health benefits for both mind and body. According to Sarah Flower, a leading nutritionist and author in the UK, Turkish baths are a natural way to remove toxins such as heavy metals, salt, alcohol and even nicotine form the body through the heavy sweating. The heat therapy also improves blood circulation, clears the respiratory tract and be prepared to leave with the clearest and softest skin you have ever had after a good bathing session.
Spending a few hours in the extreme heat is also surprisingly good for your mental health. As the heat loosens up and relaxes your muscles and opens up your chest, the stress just melts away. The combination of heat and an all-round relaxed and quiet atmosphere is the perfect antidote to stress and tension and leaving with a sense of well-being and rejuvenation is almost guarantied.
The Harrogate Turkish Baths open for specific time slots throughout the week and price vary from £19 to £32 depending on whether you choose to join a mixed, ladies-only or gents-only session. I strongly recommend pre-booking as it can get really busy over weekends or over special holidays such as Valentine’s day. Expect to spend around 1½ hours in the baths itself and leave a little more time if you want to add in another luxury treatment at the spa or have a tea and scone at the in-house cafe. The minimum age for the Turkish Baths experience and treatments is 16 years old and it is not suitable to use during pregnancy. Please visit their website for opening hours, bookings and more information.
If you would like to see more pictures of our time at the Harrogate Turkish baths or some of my other adventures in Yorkshire and around the globe, please visit me on Pinterest at @LuzanneFletcher and follow me on Instagram at @luzanne_f.